Welcome everyone to Camley Street Natural Park for the launch of our Environment Improvement Plan.
And thank you to the London Wildlife Trust for hosting us.
I was at another of your sites yesterday – Woodberry Wetlands – and I also recently visited Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Hazlewood Marshes which after a breach of its walls by the tidal surge a decade ago is a great example of mitigation and adaptation actually leading to a rejuvenated nature reserve.
I am delighted to support the important work that you do in every part of the country, both conserving nature and connecting nature to people – in the heart of the city or the countryside.
As MP for Suffolk Coastal, I am really blessed to represent a very special part of our country with many precious habitats and protected sites, on land and offshore.
I always said it felt like I had six years of a perfect apprenticeship before I became the Environment Minister in 2016.
During that three years I was in office then I am proud of much of what we achieved or got going: the Clean Air Strategy, the Resources and Waste Strategy, progress on flood defences, tackling illegal wildlife trade,
and much much more.
The standout legacy from that time was our 25 Year Environment Plan, which set out our vision and the ten complementary goals designed to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited.
I am delighted to be back now as Secretary of State, supported by a great team of ministers and civil servants here today, to present our Environmental Improvement Plan the delivery plan to achieve our ambitious, stretching environmental targets the most critical of which is to halt the decline of nature by the end of this decade.
We can and must achieve this – both here in the UK and globally, and we have a heck of a lot to do to make that happen.
Back then, we had anticipated that 2020 would be the magical year for bringing together the golden triangle, the triumvirate of climate change, nature and the ocean – with COP26, CBD15 and the UN Ocean Conference –
especially at the time with the UK trying to secure the presidency for Climate COP26 and our intention to integrate nature.
2020 would have started the roaring twenties – the decade for delivery for the planet. Then Covid hit.
We saw first-hand the risk of zoonoses and pandemics. And WHAT an impact it had.
Speaking selfishly for the environment, it was a real body blow as all the progress that had been made into turning our vibrant economy into a circular economy was somewhat derailed, understandably, in the quest to tackle the greatest public health crisis that I will ever witness.
The silver lining, if any can be had, was the power of science and collaboration around the world to create the vaccine in record time while for the environment, it was an opportunity for us to reconnect with nature providing that break from the lockdown hell that we endured.
Even then, initially, it was a tale of two cities – as families with no garden were shut out of their local park. That is why I am particularly pleased by our pledge in this plan to bring access to a green or blue space within 15 minutes’ walk of everyone’s homes – whether that be through parks, canals, rivers, countryside or coast.
But nature cannot wait any longer.
The IPBES report from 2019 set that out clearly. So, we will need to catch up at pace.
We started in late 2021 by putting nature at the heart of (the UN Climate Summit) COP26 in Glasgow, and that has continued in Egypt and is now embedded in future climate COPs.
The multiple pledges, coalitions for ambitions and the commitment of finance all were critical to unlocking transition to a greener future, including nature-based solutions, and keeping 1.5 alive.
As the Prime Minister said at COP27, ‘there is no solution to climate change without protecting and restoring nature’.
And indeed, one look at the marvellous mangroves – it wouldn’t be a speech of mine if I didn’t mention mangroves, those brilliant blue forests that capture carbon, protect coastlines and communities from storm surges, and provide vital nurseries for fish, including critical commercial stocks.
That shows us that investing in nature is an essential, effective, cost-effective way to take on a multitude of challenges, including the causes and impacts of climate change.
In 2022, the UN Ocean conference produced a call for action but undoubtedly, the key achievement of 2022 was the agreement of the Global Biodiversity framework at the UN’s Nature Summit – the CBD COP15 held in Montreal, to halt the decline of nature by 2030, protect 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, unlock the benefits of DSI – digital sequencing information re on genetic resources, and much, much more – including a financing package to make this the decade of global action to put nature on a road to recovery.
Our expert negotiators, including our ministers, empowered by our world-renowned scientists and UK jewels like Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum were all critical in delivering this global agreement and we will keep up the pace.
But why does any of this matter?
It still remains a challenge to explain why a particular bug or beetle matters in the global web of life, or why people are so passionate about reintroducing the beaver which has been out of our domestic environment for hundreds of years.
Nature is a crucial part of our islands’ story and our shared future. We know what is special with our rare habitats, our iconic species, and we also know the pressures it is under.
We rely on our natural capital for a secure supply of food, for clean air, and for clean water, as well as for leisure and genuine joy.
However, nature has been taken for granted for too long, used freely as a resource with little thought for the consequences.
We have to reverse that and respect nature. And while the full force of nature can bring us challenges and I am mindful of 70 years ago today of the Great Flood of 1953 in which over 300 people died in our country nature can help us tackle some of our great challenges, and so we need to help protect nature too.
I know there is much more to do to restore the natural world and to level with you, some of these challenges are not always so easy to fix as we might all hope.
Yet, I can assure you though that with our new legal duty to consider biodiversity, guided by our Environmental Principles Policy, we are embedding nature in the heart of every decision that government will take – for the long haul.
This is a plan for the whole of government and this is a national endeavour. And we have already started the journey, and we have seen improvements.
Our transformation on support for farmers and landowners to prioritise improving the environment, reducing carbon emissions and enabling sustainable food production is absolutely symbiotic and truly world-leading.
We have cleaner air. I want it to be even cleaner. Now, I would have loved to have made our target to achieve 10 micrograms by 2030, not 2040.
Many parts of the country already enjoy this but the evidence shows us that with the best will in the world, we cannot achieve that everywhere by the end of the decade – particularly in London.
Councils ask for a lot of powers.
I need them to use the powers they already have, including on tackling litter and fly-tipping, rather than just asking for more.
I will be publishing what they are doing and seeking to share best practice across the country.
On trees, we have to accelerate our planting rate.
The Forestry Commission will start growing their estate and increase planting fulfilling their original statutory obligation, to help rejuvenate the forestry and timber industry.
We have strengthened the financial support through ELMS and we will continue to promote urban tree planting so children everywhere can enjoy their local woods.
On our water bodies, without the specific uPBT chemical issue, nearly all of them are in good condition. those persistent chemicals, none currently reach the new standards – which is also the case in Germany.
The science and modelling is clear that it will take decades for those to recover and heal. There is little if anything we can do about that specific issue but we will continue to put the spotlight on water quality and get industry to clean up its act.
We have already seen a huge improvement in our bathing waters.
Last year nearly 3 in 4 beaches were deemed excellent and fewer than 3% deemed poor, when it was only about half excellent back in 2009 and over 10% were poor.
And I can tell people that I do care about the sewage in our waters. That is why we – a Conservative government – have turned on the monitoring and is why we are holding industry to account on fixing this.
Indeed, when it comes to tackling storm overflows, we have set clear expectations on improvements that we will track against performance
The next formal review will be in 2027 so if we can go further, faster, then that’s exactly what we will do.
Today, the new environmental targets come into law as they were agreed by Parliament, though bizarrely the Opposition tried to vote them down.
I am also aware of the concerns people have about EU retained law. I spent a lot of time post-Brexit putting all that into domestic law and after nearly 50 years in the EU, it is no surprise that there is a lot of legislation on our statute books.
Nor should it be a surprise though that a lot of that legislation is actually superfluous to our needs, as rather a lot of it has nothing to do with the UK at all or no longer does in terms of we do not need to report to various agencies.
A lot of the legislation is absolutely key to what we do which is why we will be keeping it. To avoid any doubt, I have already set out our approach to Parliament.
We will remove legislation superfluous to the UK, review the effectiveness of EU regulation in achieving environmental outcomes and we will retain, by default, environmental legislation for the UK to achieve existing environmental outcomes.
But this is also an international endeavour.
We have a globally recognised track record of action helping communities protect and restore their national treasures, reinforced by our science expertise and financial support, we already help the nature around the world.
And we will continue to do so as the impacts elsewhere can and do have consequences here in the UK.
Having committed to doubling UK international climate finance to 11.6 billion pounds, and to spending at least 3 billion on nature, we are building on decades of action, backing efforts to take on the whole host of threats that now face the world’s flora and fauna – well beyond climate change alone.
We do that through the Blue Belt programme, protecting an area of ocean larger than India around our biodiverse Overseas Territories, our world-renowned 39 million pound Darwin Initiative, and the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund.
Now, we are ploughing all that expertise and experience into our newly established 500 million pound Blue Planet Fund, and our 100 million pound Biodiverse Landscapes Fund to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities restore, protect, and connect globally important but fragile habitats.
And I am so proud that we are UK is leading, co-leading, and actively supporting the global coalitions that are committed to securing the maximum possible ambition, and achieving the greatest possible impact, on everything from taking on the scourge of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, to persuading countries to agree a new, legally-binding global treaty to end plastic pollution, by 2040, or supporting efforts to establish a global gold standard for taking nature into account across our economies.
As you can probably tell, I could spend hours talking about nature, about our mission, about what we have already achieved.
And indeed here are many more parts to our plan – on sustainable use of resources, on biosecurity, on resources, on sustainability, on adaptation, on access to nature, on green finance, and so on.
But we have work to do.
I am determined to make this a decade of delivery for Defra, for the whole government and most importantly, for the environment.
Driven by data and dashboards, I expect the whole Defra family to be working together – our agencies, delivery partners and regulators.
And in all this, our aim is to catalyse action across government, across the economy, and across the country.
And together, we can achieve this. And whether you live in a city or town, in the countryside or on the coast, I invite you to join us, because we all have a part to play, in this truly national endeavour.
Nature needs us to accelerate and scale up our help if we want to enjoy nature and have its help for generations to come and that is exactly what we are going to do.